Mahan, the Forgotten Grand Strategist

The nineteenth-century naval theorist was more than battleships and bases. He deserves a fresh look.

The world was experiencing a rapid globalization, rising powers in Asia threatened to change the balance of power, and across the globe there was a steady increase in naval spending. In the United States, parts of the political class insisted on focusing on “the problems at home,” and others feared that defense spending during challenging times would result in cookie-cutter reductions across the services, without a thought of strategic considerations. The decades at the turn of the twentieth century were a challenging time for the United States.

Over a hundred years ago there was a strategist, historian and former naval officer who recognized and wrote on these subjects. He developed U.S. strategic approaches to difficult times and laid the foundation for what some have termed “The American Century.” Today, that thinker is all but forgotten in strategic discussions of modern day challenges. Yet the work of Alfred Thayer Mahan is a relevant source and should be considered in realist solutions for twenty-first century international relations.

The Mahanian Caricature

Mahan was born in 1840 on the banks of the Hudson River, at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where his father was a respected instructor in military engineering and strategy. As military children sometimes do, he rebelled against his father’s plans for his life in the most dramatic way possible: he joined the Navy. After briefly studying law at Columbia he applied for and received an appointment to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. He served as a junior officer in the Civil War and rose through the ranks to command the U.S. Navy’s European flagship.

It isn’t Mahan’s record at sea, however, that today’s policymakers and strategists should note. Instead, starting with his time as an instructor at Annapolis and President of the U.S. Naval Institute in the 1870s, and then as one of the founding members of the faculty at the U.S. Naval War College, Mahan began writing and thinking about naval strategy and international affairs. By the time of his death in 1914 he was recognized as one of the world’s preeminent strategic thinkers.

The Mahan known to most students of international relations today is a caricature of the actual man and what he wrote. Naval historian Geoffrey Till observed, “Mahan sometimes suffers from having written more than most people are prepared to read.” For the most part we are taught that he was a proponent of battleship fleets and America’s entry into colonialism. While both of these have a kernel of truth—he was certainly a navalist and believed strongly in the annexation of Hawaii and the building of the Panama Canal—these were just elements of a much larger and more thoughtful strategic approach to international affairs. Historian Jon Sumida labeled him the “inventor of grand strategy,” and reading his voluminous articles and books can illuminate much more than how to deploy a fleet or the importance of colonies in a postcolonial world.

A Smaller World

Long before Tom Friedman wrote that the world was flattening because of globalization, Mahan wrote that the development of a global commercial system, “with the vast increase in rapidity of communications, has multiplied and strengthened the bonds knitting the interests of nations to one another, till the whole now forms an articulated system.” Steam power and the advent of both the intercontinental telegraph and wireless technology were rapidly changing the speed of communication both of physical goods and information. Mahan believed that “the world has grown smaller. Positions formerly distant have become to us of vital importance from their nearness.” Because globalization was a growing reality at the start of the twentieth century, Mahan felt that the global commons (a term he coined in his 1895 essay “The Future in Relations to American Naval Power”) required protection and defense.

If the status quo was the ideal, why did the global commons need defending? Mahan recognized that while the interest of the global system was important, each nation was more likely to have its own self-interest at the forefront of its foreign policy. He was a realist who believed that, because of the competition for raw materials and for markets in a growing global system, “commerce thus on the one hand deters from war, on the other hand it engenders conflict.”

In the competition for resources Mahan believed nations would likely take what they could, and figure out the legal and political justifications after the fact. Such naked competition led him to write that, “there do arise disputes where agreement cannot be reached and where the appeal must be made to force, that final factor which underlies the security of civil society even more than it affects the relations of states.” Mahan believed economic and political conflict sometimes led to military conflict and he wanted to develop a strong American response to this reality.

Conflicting Groups